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Pace holds the aces but battery will need constant top-up

Date

Malcolm Knox

Delivering the goods ... Jackson Bird,  who was a revelation in the just-finished series against Sri Lanka, is congratulated by teammates after taking a wicket in the third Test at Sydney.

Delivering the goods ... Jackson Bird, who was a revelation in the just-finished series against Sri Lanka, is congratulated by teammates after taking a wicket in the third Test at Sydney. Photo: Brendan Esposito

What would Australia's bowling attack be if all candidates were fit? It has been so long since this was the case that the question has a fantasy league aspect.

The reputations of some of the contenders have so grown in their absence that the national selectors must be as tantalised by unreal possibility as if they were choosing from Dennis Lillee, Ray Lindwall, Glenn McGrath and the ''Demon'' Fred Spofforth.

Injuries forced Australia to reach to the bottom of the barrel this summer, but what a deep barrel it proved to be. The last man chosen, Jackson Bird, was a revelation. Unconsidered were Patrick Cummins (man of the match in his only Test), Josh Hazlewood (long considered superior to Cummins and Mitchell Starc in NSW), Trent Copeland (a first-class phenomenon who took a wicket in his first Test over), and Ryan Harris (47 wickets in 12 Tests, average 23.63, strike rate 49.19 - remember?). The stocks were so well-filled that bowlers of the quality and promise of Doug Bollinger, Ben Cutting and Nathan Coulter-Nile did not get a look in. But they can't all play at once, even if the ''player management'' policy sees to it that bowlers operate as corporations rather than partnerships.

Who will go to India and England? Despite the likelihood of spin-friendly wickets, Australia will play to their strong suit. In 2004, in their only series win in India since 1969, Australia discarded convention and relied on pace. The shallow talent pool in the spin department will result in something similar this year. Even on dry pitches, Australia will crash through or crash.

For all the possible dream permutations, the first pacemen chosen, as they have been for the past two years, are still James Pattinson and Peter Siddle.

Between injuries, Pattinson has continually proven himself the attack leader, a fast outswing bowler in the classical mould. Siddle looked proppy by the end of the home summer, but when it counted he was the most dependable, aggressive and accurate paceman. Any English batsman who thinks he had Siddle's measure in 2010-11 will be in for a rude shock.

Starc's figures this summer flattered to deceive, but at 22 and with the strongest physique of the young men, he deserves continuity in the bowling battery. He showed in Hobart that he can reverse-swing the old ball, a sine qua non of an Indian tour, and, notwithstanding his inconsistency, it is hard not to see him in five years' time forming a world-class new-ball attack with Pattinson, Cummins and Bird.

Much has been said of Bird, some of it off the mark. The comparisons to McGrath are both premature in terms of performance and inaccurate in terms of style. He may be tall, miserly and avian, but Bird is not a McGrath type of bowler. He bowls with more of a loop and relies on swing, whereas McGrath was an English-style professional nagger, only taller, faster, meaner and better. (Hazlewood, more than Bird, is the McGrath type.) Bird's trajectory more closely resembles that of England's James Anderson. Few expect him to replicate Anderson's heroics in India, but, as Jack Gibson said, if a kid keeps improving, you never know where he's going to stop. Bird should be taken to India and England, but his reliability should not be taken as an excuse to overwork him. Kept fresh, he can win matches in both series.

Now, to cut-and-paste a question asked since 2007: what to do with Mitchell Johnson? He will probably go to India on the basis of his success in three home Tests this summer and having been the top Australian Test wicket-taker on the 2008 and 2010 tours, even if neither statistic stands up to particularly close examination. At home, ''Perthonality'' Johnson had the great fortune to play on bouncy wickets, where he showed his ability to exploit the most un-Indian conditions. In Sydney, the bounce was variable and so was Johnson. Before anyone makes too much of his revitalisation, he might be tested on wickets that torture the pacemen, such as those he did not bowl on in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart. He will get them on the subcontinent.

Johnson's reputation as an India hand is a little inflated. In 2008, he took 13 wickets in four Tests at 40.07 with a strike rate of 76.61. He toiled hard on batsmen's wickets as the attack leaders, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark, hit veteran status. In 2010, in two Tests, Johnson took eight wickets at 32.62, five of them in the first innings of the first Test at Mohali. He went wicketless when India chased down a big target on the last day, and back in Australia he was dropped.

His effectiveness in India, such as it was, benefited from having Shane Watson's accuracy at the other end; now no longer.

In his favour, Johnson's experience of Indian conditions and mature body will suit him to the inevitable workhorse role. My guess is that the Australians will take him and use him hard, perhaps even use him up, preserving the younger men for England, where Johnson's 2009 embarrassments will remain in memory. If Johnson ends up in England again, he will have had to earn it in India.

Ben Hilfenhaus was also driven hard in India in 2010, when he took six wickets at 43.50 but was the biggest threat at the death in Mohali. Hilfenhaus's injured side will probably get him a leave pass from India this time. In England, instinct wants to overlay Hilfenhaus with the ghost of Terry Alderman, but in 2009 he was honest rather than incisive. The most-bowled Australian in the Ashes Tests, Hilfenhaus took 22 wickets at 27.45, top in the aggregates and averages, but never threatening havoc and never taking more than three wickets in an innings. I think Harris is the better exponent of swing and seam, but the fitter man will go and that is more likely the Tasmanian, on the proviso that his strange loss of form this summer is only temporary.

So, on a for-what-it's-worth basis, if all fast bowlers are fit, my fully rotatable squad for India would be: Siddle, Pattinson alternating with Bird, and Johnson alternating with Starc, alongside Nathan Lyon. For England, it would be Siddle, Pattinson, Bird, Starc and Hilfenhaus (or Harris, if fit), with Cummins on standby, and if there's any grass on any wicket, choose the best four bowlers, whatever their speed.

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